What is an Engaging Learning Experience?

This week Edutopia reposted an article about student engagement by Heather Wolpert-Gawron. Heather asked 220 of her eighth grader “What Engages Students?” and uncovered ten common themes. Whilst they are relevant to the eighth grade classroom, they are also applicable to museum visitor engagement and many of the ideas are supported by museum specific research. Below I’ve elaborated on Heather’s students’ ten common themes in the context of the museum learning experiences.

1. Working with their peers

Students claimed that “teens find it most interesting and exciting when there is a little bit of talking involved. Discussions…allow students to participate…” 

The desire for a peer based, social experience in a museum context extends well beyond the teen market. The after hours museum bar model, heavily adopted in recent years, is targeted primarily at young adults. Likewise, research, such as that done at the Whitney Museum of American Art, shows that adults have a desire for social elements to be included in their museum experience including;

places to sit so people can relax and talk about what they’ve seen; add social media functions (e.g., sharing pictures on social media sites such as Facebook, pinging people nearby); incorporate question prompts that would encourage visitors to discuss topics with others in their group 


2. Working With Technology 

Students say, “I believe that when students participate in “learning by doing” it helps them focus more. Technology helps them to do that. Students will always be extremely excited when using technology.”

“We have entered a digital age of video, Facebook, Twitter, etc., and they [have] become more of a daily thing for teens and students. When we use tech, it engages me more and lets me understand the concept more clearly.”

The reality is, smart phones and social media are a daily thing for a much wider demographic than teens and students. In 2013, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 85% of Australians accessed the internet via their handset and just under half of Australians, 9.5 million, accessed Facebook on their phone. The incorporation of social media into a museum visit satisfies the visitors’ need for social experience, makes the experience more familiar and is often great marketing for the museum. Technology is also another means by which to develop a participatory, hands on experience or continue the experience online after the museum visit has concluded.

3. Connecting the real world to the work we do/project based learning 

Students want, “…relations between the text and the outside world. For example, I was in a history class last year…after every lesson, every essay, every assignment, he asked us, “How does this event relate to current times?” It brought me to a greater thinking, a kind of thinking where I can relate the past to the present and how closely they are bonded together.”

Students claimed that “If you relate the topic to the students’ lives, then it makes the concept easier to grasp.”

“To be able to understand and connect with the moment is what will make students three times more enthusiastic about learning beyond the black and white of the Times New Roman text.”

“Also something challenging and not easy, something to test your strengths as a student and stimulate your brain, so it becomes easier to deal with similar problems when you are grown up and have a job.”

All kinds of museums are well placed to contextualise current issues, events or anniversaries. Collections tell the narratives of the community they represent through their owners, use and acquisition as well as how they influenced the world today. Establishing a connection with the audience through empathy, place or common experience can invoke interest in any topic from history to science to art, and everything in between. A desire for more real world experiences supports the interdisciplinary approach of many museums.

4. Clearly love what you do

Students say, “teachers should speak to us like they’re really passionate about teaching.”

“”I also believe that enthusiasm in the classroom really makes a student engaged in classroom discussions. I also believe that excitement and enthusiasm is contagious.”

I am a self proclaimed history, education and museum nerd. I am excited, infuriated and intrigued by topical articles that pop up in my social media feeds, in the news or on my desk. For the last five years, I have worked in the education department of a history museum and I like to think that the enthusiasm for my work, shown by the teachers and students, is in part due to the passion, knowledge and willingness I project. A museum that takes pride in its work through its exhibitions, its programming and its customer service can only serve to improve any visitors’ experience. We have all experience bad customer service at a restaurant or a shop and through twice about returning.

5. Get me out of my seat!

“When a student is active they learn in a deeper way than sitting. For example, in my history class, we had a debate on whether SOPA and PIPA were good ideas. My teacher had us stand on either ends of the room to state whether we agree or disagree with the proposition. By doing this, I was able to listen to what all my classmates had to say.”

Body language is a key indicator of visitor engagement. Visitors slumped on couches at the end of the exhibition waiting for the rest of their group or slouched in front of an artwork are familiar sites to any museumgoer. As the students surveyed suggest, it’s much easier to fall asleep or tune out when you are seated at a desk for a long period of time and are part of a passive experience; and it is exacerbated by heat, darkness and other factors. Whilst museum visitors aren’t typically seated, participatory practices are shown to increase behaviours such as walking around to observe all sides of an object, close up viewing, group discussion and longer visit times. (Spires, 1989 and http://mw2013.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/lessons-learned-evaluating-the-whitneys-multimedia-guide/ )

Abbott Classroom Seaforth PS
The Australian Prime Minister talking to students at a primary school today. Are all of the students engaged by this passive experience?

6. Bring in visuals 

“I like to see pictures because it makes my understanding on a topic clearer.”

“I am interested when there are lots of visuals to go with the lesson. Power Points are often nice, but they get boring… Pictures and cartoons usually are the best way to get attention.”

Psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has been around for a long time now and is well referenced in education. As Gardner says, the implication for education is that ideas should be taught in multiple ways and with consideration of how each individual student learns best based on their intelligence/s (eg. visual, verbal, musical etc.). The students’ comments support this idea by saying they prefer pluralization and diversity. Intelligences and preferred learning styles rarely change with age meaning that how people learn should be a key consideration in planning exhibitions and programs, and that as many learning styles and intelligences as possible should be accommodated.

7. Student Choice

“I think having freedom in assignments, project directions, and more choices would engage students…More variety = more space for creativity.”

“Giving students choices helps us use our strengths and gives us freedom to make a project the way we want it to. When we do something we like, we’re more focused and enjoy school more.”

“Another way is to make the curriculum flexible for students who are more/less advanced. There could be a list of project choices and student can pick from that according to their level.”

Vygotsky advocates for scaffolded or layer learning. Museums have an eclectic range of visitors traversing many demographics. Exhibition development and programming should consider scaffolding to accommodate, for example, both the academic audience who is well versed in the subject knowledge, and tourists with very little background knowledge or interest. Giving all visitors choice allows them to focus on their areas of interest and work within the parameters of their existing knowledge. My partner and I both enjoy 18th century landscape and cityscape paintings so usually spend the most time in this gallery. Similarly, I studied Ancient Roman history as part of my Bachelor of Arts and on a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts spent a disproportionate amount of time in the Greek and Roman galleries, swooning over mosaics and pots.

8. Understand your clients 

“If the teacher shows us that they are confident in our abilities and has a welcoming and well-spirited personality towards us, we feel more capable of doing the things we couldn’t do…What I’m trying to say is students are more engaged when they feel they are in a “partnership” with their teacher.”

“Personally, I think that students don’t really like to be treated as ‘students.’…They need to ask for our input on how the students feel about a project, a test, etc…See from our point of view and embrace it.”

“…everyone should feel comfortable so that they are encouraged to raise their hands to ask questions or ask for help.”

“Teachers should know that within every class they teach, the students are all different.”

Research indicates that young adults often find museums unapproachable and sterile, and dislike a museum experience where knowledge is dictated. Nina Simon in The Participatory Museum talks of participation including visitors as respected collaborators. This does not mean handing over the museum to the visitor and disregarding the qualifications and experience of the staff. Instead, museums become facilitators of discussions, learning and experiences, within the parameters set and hopefully in a way that achieves the museum’s desired outcome. Part of this does involving at least consultation with visitors about their expectations and to make them feel like valued members of the museum community.

9.Mix it Up!

“I don’t like doing only one constant activity…a variety will keep me engaged in the topic. It’s not just for work, but also for other things such as food. Eating the same foods constantly makes you not want to eat!”

“Fun experiments in science class…acting out little skits in history…if students are going to remember something, they need visuals, some auditory lessons, and some emotions.”

“Also, you can’t go wrong with some comedy. Everyone loves a laugh…another thing that engages me would be class or group games. In Language Arts I’ve played a game of “dodge ball. We throw words at each other, one at a time. If they could get the definition, the person who threw the word would be out…Students remember the ones they got wrong, and of course, the ones they already knew.”

Mixing up the museum experience may be daunting for the museums staff, but is what people come to expect. The eighth graders surveyed for the Edutopia article will be disengaged museum visitors within five years. Whilst they will grown up, mature and evolve their desire to have fun, diversity and laugh will not diminish. In order to engage them in the museum, their desire for choice and interdisciplinary experiences can not be ignored.

10. Be human

Don’t forget to have a little fun yourself.”

Museums are slowly opening up. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, now have some of their conservation labs behind glass in view of the public. The museum should not be a secret, if we humanise ourselves we can address some of the issues of approachability. I have worked in recent years primarily with communities in regional Australia. At first, as ‘city person’ I have faced adversity and hesitation from teachers, students and community groups. However when I reveal that I grew up in the country and reveal a little of myself, the walls come down.

As an educator, these principles are Education theory 101 but I hope to see learning theory spread more broadly through the museum sector as we are all in the business of learning and, hopefully, fun too!


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